Scientific Authority and the Creation of Practical Electricity Before Edison
432 pp., 7 x 9 in, 45 b&w illus., 1 table
- Published: January 21, 2011
- Published: August 1, 2008
The development of electrical technologies that laid the foundation for Edison's work: their invention, commercialization, and adoption.
In 1882, Thomas Edison and his Edison Electric Light Company unveiled the first large-scale electrical system in the world to light a stretch of offices in a city. This was a monumental achievement, but it was not the beginning of the electrical age. The first electric generators were built in the 1830s, the earliest commercial lighting systems before 1860, and the first commercial application of generator-powered lights (in lighthouses) in the early 1860s. In Power Struggles, Michael Brian Schiffer examines some of these earlier efforts, both successful and unsuccessful, that paved the way for Edison. After laying out a unified theoretical framework for understanding technological change, Schiffer presents a series of fascinating case studies of pre-Edison electrical technologies, including Volta's electrochemical battery, the blacksmith's electric motor, the first mechanical generators, Morse's telegraph, the Atlantic cable, and the lighting of the Capitol dome. Schiffer discusses claims of “practicality” and “impracticality” (sometimes hotly contested) made for these technologies, and examines the central role of the scientific authority—in particular, the activities of Joseph Henry, mid-nineteenth-century America's foremost scientist—in determining the fate of particular technologies. These emerging electrical technologies formed the foundation of the modern industrial world. Schiffer shows how and why they became commercial products in the context of an evolving corporate capitalism in which conflicting judgments of practicality sometimes turned into power struggles.
Power Struggles tells the story of practical electricity in a way that readers at any level will find engaging and authoritative. But lurking beneath the surface, unobtrusively, is a significant theoretical advance—one that captures the best of social constructivism without ignoring the undeniable material realities of volts and amps, DC and AC, and storage vs. transmission. For any reader with an interest in electricity in the pre-Edison epoch, this is a synthesis worth savoring.
Bryan Pfaffenberger, Department of Science, Technology, and Society, University of Virginia
Schiffer's book highlights the unexpected and sometimes quirky nature of the history of electrical technology. His clear prose and careful scholarship lead the reader through a complex slalom course that examines technological history from physics to personalities and from scientific to market-driven demands in a narrative that challenges conventional assumptions about technological 'progress.' Bravo!
Richard A. Gould, Department of Anthropology, Brown University
This is an eminently readable account of the early years of electrical technology, as engineers and scientists in the pre-Edison years searched for practical uses of electricity. Schiffer weaves a fascinating account of machines and the humans who made and used them, focusing not only on the technology but also on the social, political, and commercial contexts in which electricity played an ever-expanding role. A great book!
Michael J. O'Brien, Dean, College of Arts and Science, and Director, Museum of Anthropology, University of Missouri